School wars: What's next? Baltimore embarks on journey into unknown

June 16, 1996|By Jean Thompson

FOR MANY IN Baltimore's school community, the joy of the coming summer is overshadowed by the unknown that lies ahead.

As the children race home for vacation, the politicians and bureaucrats from Baltimore to Annapolis are weighing the fate of the entire school system and its current leaders. Educators and community activists, meanwhile, are debating proposals that would change the makeup and the management of individual city schools.

No one is sure what direction the school system will take. Many are convinced, however, that the events of 1995-1996 have moved the school system closer to the brink of change: The city must improve its schools demonstrably, or outsiders will do it.

Whether by court order, by settlement or judgment in pending lawsuits, or by a show of leadership, something has to give.

The message came loudest from parents at a public hearing on the city's reform options last week. They cut straight through the education mumbo-jumbo to get to the bottom line.

Notably, they seem little concerned about who will run the schools - the city, the state, the city and state in partnership, the private school-management companies, the non-profit and grass-roots groups.

For many, instead, the issue is service: Who will deliver a better product?

"Your management doesn't address the overcrowding. It doesn't address the behavior problems. It doesn't address the curriculum," testified one mother. "Let the kids who want to learn, learn."

Joseph Brown Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for city council las year, said he has enrolled his 4-year-old in prekindergarten in a city school, but would follow others who have pulled their children out if the system does not improve. "I don't have a choice. They have to have the best start possible."

The message is crystallizing for City Councilman Keiffer J Mitchell Jr., moderator of the public hearing and chairman of the Mayor's Task Force on School Choice, which is looking at reform alternatives.

Mitchell, a teacher at Boys' Latin, asked [See Schools, 5e] th participants whether they favored vouchers for parents to take to the school of their choice; increases in the number of magnet schools; schools conceived and run by non-profit and parent groups.

"Basically, the consensus has been that in order to do any kin of 'school choice,' you first have to do school reform," he said. "There has to be an effort to improve the schools before we can do 'choice.'"

But that's not what city and state politicians and bureaucrats have battled about all year. Mostly, they have fought about money, management and power. They have made 1995-1996 the year that the battle for control escalated from words to lawsuits.

"I think it's inevitable that when two parties are going agains each other in a lawsuit, you are going to have friction and lobs of bombs," Mitchell said. "The sad thing is you have the children who are caught in the middle."

Here are some of the tumultuous events that punctuated th current school year:

n Fearing the federal judge overseeing an 11-year-old special education lawsuit might put the schools in receivership, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke fractured school government.

Schmoke stripped authority over special education services from Schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey last summer, and hired Kathleen Feeley, former Notre Dame College president, to run it. The mayor also approved a costly, citywide overhaul of services for children with learning and physical disabilities, with the goal of moving closer to ending the case.

The outcome this year has included many program improvements - at a price. The cost, plus that of a raise he gave to teachers, bumped the schools' budget into the red by $32 million. The shortfall led to layoffs and to spending cutbacks at central office and in schools.

n The city school board voted to end Baltimore's contract with for-profit Education Alternatives Inc. Some critics argued that union politics doomed the experiment while it was young, before it had a chance to succeed.

The experiment gave the school-management compan significant control over nine schools. At the end, an evaluation by university researchers suggested that while operating with more money than comparable city-run schools, the nine EAI schools were not performing at a significantly higher level. Some parents in those schools still lament the company's departure.

n In September, Baltimore sued the state, seeking an increase in state aid for city schools. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a similar suit months before.

They charged the state is failing to meet its obligation to provid a decent education for city children.

Increasingly high standards set for school performance can't b met without corresponding increases in aid, they argue.

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